Experts briefing the Security Council during a 29 June videoconference meeting* warned that cases of COVID-19 are likely to spread “like wildfire” amid Syria’s displaced millions — already suffering from hunger, spiking food prices and a health system decimated by war — while urging members to promptly renew the country’s crucial cross-border aid mechanism amid the pandemic.
Cross-border operations were first authorized under Council resolution 2165 (2014) to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to populations in need. However, the mechanism’s renewal has since become a point of divergence among the Council’s 15 members, who voted in January to renew two of its crossing points and close two others. That mandate, as laid out in resolution 2504 (2020), is slated to expire on 10 July.
Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Humanitarian Relief Coordinator, said that, to date, the Government of Syria has confirmed 256 cases of COVID-19, including 9 deaths — a more than four‑fold increase since his last briefing. While that number is low, he warned that testing remains extremely limited. “We can see from what has recently been happening elsewhere in the region […] the scale of the risks ahead,” he said, adding that one need only look to Yemen to see how quickly COVID-19 can collapse a health system devastated by years of war.
While the United Nations is working to bolster preparedness and response measures, he said significant gaps remain. Syria’s health system is not prepared for a large-scale outbreak. The country also faces a serious economic downturn, with the soaring prices of imported food, fuel and other critical items. Citing a 78 per cent devaluation of the Syrian pound, he said food prices have spiked and a growing number of Syrians are going into debt or eating less in order to survive. Some 9.3 million people are now food insecure, the highest level ever recorded in Syria and growing. “Across the country, people who have struggled through nine years of conflict are now telling us they are at a breaking point,” he said.
Against that backdrop, he welcomed the commitment by States to apply humanitarian exemptions to sanctions they had previously imposed on Syria, while echoing the Secretary-General’s appeal to waive any measures that could undermine the country’s ability to combat the coronavirus. He noted public assurances by the United States and the European Union that their Syria sanctions programmes neither ban the flow of humanitarian supplies, nor target medicines and medical devices. In Syria’s north-west, 8.2 million people rely on humanitarian assistance, following massive displacement earlier in 2020.
Outlining strides and challenges in the delivery of humanitarian aid, he said the cross-border aid deliveries reauthorized by resolution 2504 (2020) facilitated the crossing of 1,781 trucks from Turkey into Syria in May. However, those efforts remain insufficient. Mothers arriving at nutrition centres report being priced out of food staples and medicines, leaving them solely reliant on food delivered across the border. Some are so desperate they are cooking weeds to survive. Calling for a scale-up of the cross-border operation, he warned that any efforts to further cut it would only cause more suffering and death.
Turning to cross-line assistance in Syria’s north-west region — which arrives from inside Syria, instead of across borders — he said that mechanism is still unable to match what is achieved through the cross-border operation. However, efforts have resumed to plan a cross-line operation into Idlib following its suspension in April due to COVID-19 concerns. The Secretary-General’s recent reports note that continued cross-border operations require a renewal of the authorizations for the Bab al-Salaam and Bab al-Hawa border crossings for an additional 12 months, he said, stressing that both crossings remain essential.
Meanwhile, he said, United Nations humanitarian operations reached more than 5.5 million people in Syria in the first four months of 2020. Their deliveries include food assistance for 3.2 million people, nutrition support for half a million children and water and sanitation for 1.3 million people, as well as millions of medical procedures and treatment courses. Humanitarian cash assistance has been scaled up amid the pandemic, with $40 million distributed so far through cash and vouchers provided to the most vulnerable.
Turning to the situation in the north-east, he said the World Health Organization (WHO) has dispatched two shipments of aid overland in addition to those sent by air. However, more than five months after the closure of the Al‑Yarubiya crossing along the Iraq border, medical items have not reached the majority of facilities that previously depended on cross-border supplies. A combination of both cross-border and cross-line aid is needed, he said, adding that the Council will also need to authorize additional crossings if adequate steps for cross-line deliveries are not taken.
Recalling the Russian Federation’s recent announcement that it will end its participation in the United Nations humanitarian notification system — or “deconfliction mechanism”, used to share information to protect humanitarian workers and medical facilities — he emphasized that all parties remain bound by international law regardless of whether or not they take part in the system. He concluded by reiterating his call for a renewal of resolution 2504 (2020), stressing that it provides a lifeline to millions who cannot otherwise be reached.
Susannah Sirkin, Director of Policy and Senior Adviser, Physicians for Human Rights, said COVID-19 presents an “urgent call to conscience” for the Council and the international community. Her organization has been documenting and reporting on human rights violations in Syria, including attacks on health workers, for nine years. Stressing that today’s humanitarian crisis is inextricably linked to the Government’s behaviour over the course of the conflict, she said that, while all parties have committed violations, the Government’s deliberate destruction of health facilities, targeting of health professionals and forcible displacement of millions of civilians “have no parallel”.
“When you kill a doctor, you attack her patients, and when you bomb a health clinic, you terrorize a community,” she said, adding that such breaking of people’s spirits by crushing their health care has been part of the Government’s strategy. Noting that her group has recorded 595 attacks on more than 350 health facilities — constituting crimes against humanity — she expressed concern that that number will continue to rise given the fragility of the ceasefire and recent spikes in violence.
“Much has changed in our world in the past year, but the core behaviour of the parties to the conflict has not,” she said, adding that Syria and the Russian Federation continue to flout international norms with impunity. While COVID-19 has strained even the world’s strongest health-care systems, Syria’s are particularly frail, and a virus outbreak would be catastrophic. “It is only a matter of time before coronavirus finds its way into the internally displaced persons camps and dense population centres of this region,” she said. Needs remain overwhelming, while overcrowding, malnutrition and persistent resource gaps make it likely that the virus will spread like wildfire.
Turning to the north-east, she described shocking shortages of medical supplies in an area hosting 2 million people. Gaps have grown more severe since the Council removed the Al-Yarubiyah crossing along the Iraq border, and cross‑line aid has not compensated for its loss. “For the Council to expect a Government responsible for […] one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time to turn around and facilitate access to aid in good faith is an exercise in self‑delusion,” she stressed, warning of an impending health-care system collapse. The Council knows it can — and should — do more to enable aid delivery, she said, calling for a renewal of the cross-border mechanism for a minimum of 12 months and the reauthorization of the Al-Yarubiyah crossing. “The Council must not bargain with the lives and health of Syrians,” she stressed.
Council members delivered remarks following those briefings, with many expressing deep concern over the continued deterioration of Syria’s already complex humanitarian landscape. Many advocated for a continued — and scaled‑up — mix of both cross-border and cross-line aid delivery, while sounding alarm about the rising rate of hunger and the possibility of a complete health-care system collapse amid an outbreak of COVID-19.
Germany’s representative, also speaking on behalf of Belgium, said that nine years of war, the irresponsibility of the Syrian authorities and COVID-19 are among the factors driving more Syrians into poverty. Against that backdrop, he called on donors to attend a 30 June funding conference in Brussels and alleviate the Syrian people’s suffering. However, humanitarian access is also needed. Council members should cooperate in good faith and promptly renew resolution 2504 (2020) for 12 months. “By delaying the process […] we put the ability of humanitarian organizations to save lives in danger,” he stressed, warning against allowing political considerations to guide such a critical decision.
Estonia’s delegate was among those speakers who voiced concern about the Russian Federation’s intention to withdraw from deconfliction arrangements, as well as deliberate attacks on humanitarian locations by the Syrian regime and its allies. Calling on Moscow to resume its coordination with the United Nations, he declared: “It is better to have 10 years of negotiations, than 1 day of war.” He echoed expressions of support for a renewal of the cross-border mechanism, adding that, while reauthorizing the Al-Yarubiyah crossing is the most effective solution, other options could also be considered.
The representative of South Africa called on all parties to “put humanity first” and seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Every effort must be made to fully implement resolution 2254 (2015) and avoid the further displacement and loss of life. Commending efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, he questioned the intended impact of unilateral sanctions still imposed on Syria by some States. Armed groups must not be allowed to take advantage of the world’s focus on COVID‑19 to escalate attacks, he stressed, while calling on all parties to release detained civilians. South Africa will keep advocating for aid to all Syrians, including through cross-border and cross-line deliveries.
Indonesia’s representative joined others in expressing concern that the economic situation in Syria continues to deteriorate and COVID-19 is exacerbating risks to livelihoods. Calling for “all-out efforts” to meet humanitarian needs, he said a sustained, large-scale cross-border response is still needed to meet the enormous needs in the north-west, where the United Nations lacks alternative ways to reach people. Against that backdrop, he supported the renewal of the cross‑border mechanism for an additional 12 months. He also underscored the need to mitigate the impact of the Al-Yarubiyah crossing closure, asking Council members to “discuss that issue wisely”.
The representative of France, Council President for June, spoke in his national capacity, stressing that only a nationwide, immediate and sustainable ceasefire under United Nations auspices will protect Syria’s civilians. The truce between the Russian Federation and Turkey in the north-east remains fragile, and the cross-border mechanism has never been so critical, he said, noting that cross‑line aid remains largely insufficient and fails to offer guarantees on transparency and impartiality. In that context, he agreed with the proposal to renew the cross-border mechanism for 12 months and supporting the reopening of the Al-Yarubiyah crossing for an initial period of six months.
The delegate of the United States noted that only 11 days remain until the cross-border mechanism’s mandate is set to expire. “I can’t overstate how important this Council’s decision will be to millions of people throughout Syria,” she said, urging members to reauthorize the use of both the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossings and echoing calls to temporarily re-open the Al-Yarubiyah crossing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Rejecting the Al-Assad regime’s despicable “starve and siege” tactics, she warned against mistaking one-off aid deliveries from Damascus as real progress. Suggestions that United States sanctions prevent aid from reaching Syria are only propaganda, she said, pointing out that the United States has provided $10.6 billion to the country to date.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines reiterated her delegation’s support for the most optimal humanitarian access arrangements to guarantee the rapid, uninterrupted and direct provision of humanitarian aid to those in need. She called for the lifting of all unilateral coercive sanctions, adding that, in northern Syria, coordinated and targeted operations against Council-designated terrorist groups must fully respect obligations under international law. The ceasefire in the north-west must be preserved and a nationwide cessation of hostilities pursued. She emphasized that, without a political solution — one that upholds Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity — the conflict will continue and the humanitarian situation will worsen.
The Dominican Republic’s representative echoed support for the 12-month renewal, noting that the Council’s role is to facilitate the work of “real heroes” who are saving the lives of those who are neglected, hungry, displaced, fearful and now facing deep uncertainty. The cross-border mechanism is not only about warehouses, boxes, trucks and delivery of assistance. Rather, it allows people to cope with the devastating effects of conflict and the international community’s inability to solve it through peaceful means. In addition, given the potential impact of COVID-19, a temporary reauthorization of the Al-Yarubiyah crossing is needed. “Let’s do the right thing,” he stressed.
Niger’s delegate echoed expressions of concern about the deterioration of Syria’s economy, food shortages and price spikes, as well as very high numbers of food‑insecure people. Urgent steps are needed to guarantee access to food, medical supplies and medical assistance. The Council must find a permanent and secure solution to the problem of humanitarian aid delivery to north-east and north-west Syria, but, in the meantime, the cross-border and cross-line mechanisms remain the only lifeline for millions in need. In that regard, he looked forward to the renewal of resolution 2504 (2020) on a consensual and non-politicized basis, while calling for full respect for Syria’s sovereignty.
Viet Nam’s representative was among those speakers who noted the fact that WHO overland aid deliveries were able to reach the north-east region. However, he said there remains a serious shortage of medical supplies, and the Syrian Government bears the primary responsibility to settle the country’s humanitarian situation. “It is important that the international community stays entirely united in supporting people in need,” he stressed. Underlining the need to ensure that Syria’s COVID-19 response is not affected by sanctions, he called for a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led peace process in full respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity and non-interference in States’ internal affairs.
China’s representative, also echoing expressions of concern for the suffering of Syrian civilians, said the biggest factor driving the country’s economic and humanitarian crises is unilateral sanctions. Recalling the Secretary-General’s distinct appeal for their waiving, which was echoed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, he once again strongly urged relevant countries to lift such measures. He also called on the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to pay greater attention to the negative impact sanctions have on humanitarian situations around the world. Syria’s Government bears the primary responsibility for improving conditions in the country — including preventing and containing the spread of COVID‑19 — and its role cannot be replaced. Against that backdrop, he noted the successful overland delivery of medical supplies and called on United Nations agencies to focus on removing obstacles to cross-line aid, in cooperation with Damascus.
The representative of the Russian Federation rejected the notion that the cross-border mechanism is a “magic solution” for Syria’s humanitarian challenges, instead describing it as a political tool for drawing lines of division. The mechanism is also used as leverage against cross-line aid, he said, citing evidence of sabotage to humanitarian deliveries within Syria. His delegation had hoped to hear from Mr. Lowcock an assessment of how United States sanctions are impacting the lives of Syrians. “With one hand you advocate humanitarian assistance [… and] with another you choke ordinary Syrians,” he said. Regarding the deconfliction mechanism, he stressed that that arrangement is voluntary and lacks a mandate from the Council. The Russian Federation repeatedly spotlighted the mechanism’s drawbacks — including its use of unverified information — but was ignored. From now on, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs should settle the issue of deconflicted sites with Syria’s Government, he said, noting that his country has never hit any civilian convoy and will continue to exclude the possibility of targeting civilian sites.
Syria’s representative rejected attempts by Western Governments to promote themselves as paragons of humanity and ethics, even as they fail to waive — and even tighten — sanctions during a viral pandemic. Citing false allegations and efforts to evade responsibility for their economic terrorism, he said it is impossible to believe that Germany, Belgium, United States, United Kingdom and France harbour any goodwill for the welfare of Syrians, while they continue to harm their livelihoods. He also warned against surrendering to the ambitions of the United States or to “Turkification” efforts, asking those Council members who belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) whether they support international law or, instead, efforts to occupy parts of Syria.
Spotlighting Turkey’s efforts to prevent humanitarian convoys from reaching north-west Syria, he rejected yet another Council resolution aimed at extending cross-border activities. “Such resolutions aim to serve the agendas of hostile Governments [and] infringe on [Syria’s] sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said, recalling that resolution 2165 (2014) — which first mandated the cross‑border mechanism — was an exceptional, temporary measure. Adding more crossings will only serve the occupation and threaten Syria’s integrity and unity. Instead, the Council should address the root causes of the crisis by ending the United States-Turkey occupation, lifting all unilateral coercive measures and helping Damascus combat terrorism.
Also participating were the representatives of China, Tunisia, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.